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Cambodia’s Killing Fields: What brutal histories can teach us

It’s always instructive to learn from history. It feels particularly so now, given the rise of extreme divisions in political debate around the world.

Last week I visited the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre – aka Killing Fields – in Phnom Penh.

Today butterflies flit around the former orchard site. But between 1975 and 1979, almost 9000 people were brutally executed there by the Khmer Rouge. People were killed with machetes, bamboo poles and anything else available – bullets were too expensive. Babies were smashed against a tree.

The whole experience left me unsettled – not only because of the brutality of the entire episode, but also because of the drivers which led to this mass abandonment of humanity.

I remember this same unsettling feeling at the genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. It is a horror and an incomprehension about what can drive people to act in this way towards other humans. How can someone act so callously, take so much human life in a completely visceral and barbaric way – essentially to forget they are human?

The drivers of these horrific mass killing events have been fairly consistent. The rise of inequality and extreme ‘othering’ has the potential to bring out the basest elements of human nature. Pol Pot’s regime mobilised farmers and people from the countryside against city dwellers, intellectuals and people with foreign connections. Many of the people who were murdered were simply teachers.

Inequality has been rising in the UK. Hate speech is becoming normalised. Animosity between Leavers and Remainers defines much of the public debate. The rhetoric that is totted our against the ‘metropolitan elite’ and ‘global citizens’ feels extremely dangerous. These are the basis of behaviour that dehumanise.

We have strong institutions in the UK. These protect us. They stop negative elements from spiralling out of control. They support a diversity of views and promote healthy dialogue. They help us to avoid complete catastrophe. But their strength is only based on the strength of our faith and conviction in them.

The incident with Anna Soubry outside Parliament last week was a chilling reminder that the threads of our social fabric are unravelling. It was caused by feelings of exclusion and inequality, extreme ‘othering’, a breakdown in basic respect, by ignoring the humanity of others and a lack of faith in our systems and institutions.

Yes the comparison between what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s and the UK today is extreme. But the parallels between some of the underlying drivers and behaviours struck me quite painfully.

It makes me worried about how we proceed as a society from here.

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